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‘Progressive veteran’ faces uphill fight in 53rd CD

Jose Caballero, candidate in the primary for the 53rd Congressional District in San Diego. (Photo: Joaquin Romero)

As California’s 2020 primary election nears, congressional districts across the state face major changes

One of the most significant is the 53rd Congressional District in San Diego. For the past 19 years, the seat has been held by Democratic  Rep. Susan Davis, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Administration.

Originally from Texas, Caballero said in an interview that his father was involved in drug dealing and money laundering.

A crowd of other candidates also want the job, including the presumptive front runner,  San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez, and Sara Jacobs, a former aide to Hillary Clinton.

In September, Davis announced she would not seek reelection. 

Jose Caballero, a military veteran, Bernie Sanders supporter and political consultant who describes himself as a progressive Democrat, is running for the seat. Davis said that her decision was driven by a desire to “live and work ‘at home’” in San Diego, although Caballero contends that her retirement came as a result of intensifying pressure from her primary challengers and from unhappy constituents. Caballero had announced his intention to run before Davis’s announcement.

A crowd of other candidates also want the job, including the presumptive front runner,  San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez, and Sara Jacobs, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and a scholar in residence at the University of San Diego.

But Caballero deserves a look and his story is unusual.

Originally from Texas, Caballero said in an interview that his father was involved in drug dealing and money laundering. The activities prompted his mother to leave Texas with Jose and his sister.

“[The club] brought the Bernie (Sanders) people into the room to create an intersection between the establishment and the Bernie progressives.”  — Jose Caballero.

The family moved to the town of Mineral Wells in California, where they lived with grandparents in a one-bedroom apartment. As a teenager, Caballero joined the Navy and spent six years stationed on an aircraft carrier. Though he says that he originally joined the military out of patriotism, it was his experiences in the service that would push him towards his present politics.

Caballero describes watching planes take off from the carrier, and then later seeing footage of those same planes dropping bombs in Afghanistan, which caused him to question why he was taking part.

After his military service, Caballero moved to San Diego, where he studied political science at San Diego State University. He became active in local politics and in 2015 he founded the San Diego Progressive Democratic Club, which he said developed significant political clout in the county.

“[The club] brought the Bernie (Sanders) people into the room to create an intersection between the establishment and the Bernie progressives,” Caballero said.

The other Democratic candidates include Gomez, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

In 2016, Caballero made first attempt for public office with an unsuccessful run for the San Diego City Council. He served on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and as a delegate for the California Democratic Party.

For the past three years, Caballero has run a political consulting firm that works with labor unions and groups espousing tenants’ rights, animal rights and veterans’ rights.

Caballero says he decided to run for the 53rd CD because Davis was a “seat-warmer” and largely ineffective, contending that Davis has authored only two bills that were passed during her time in office. Additionally, he called her willingness to back legislation promoting military spending and offshore drilling as “only doing what was politically advantageous at the time”.

“She was no longer where her district wanted her to be” he says. “Because she never had a legitimate challenger for the twenty years she’s been in office, people didn’t take the time to ask ‘Who is this? Why are we voting for her every time.’”

Caballero isn’t alone in seeking the seat: Currently, there are nine other candidates competing in the Democratic primary, according to the state elections officer. They include Jacobs and Gomez, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

“I am a progressive veteran for peace. Most diehard progressives or democratic socialists are not veterans.” — Jose Caballero

Caballero acknowledges that he has an uphill fight, but notes that nearly one in two voters in the district voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, which works to Caballero’s advantage. Caballero supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and cancelling student debt – all positions taken by Sanders.

Additionally, Caballero thinks his own background as a veteran could be the key to reaching more moderate voters.

“I am an interesting flavor of progressive. I am a progressive veteran for peace. Most diehard progressives or democratic socialists are not veterans. They were, I guess, woke enough to not join the military industrial complex,” he says.

In fact, his relationship to military service has become one of the defining features of Caballero’s campaign. It is the impetus for what is essentially his flagship policy proposal — the “Hero’s Promise.“

The Hero’s Promise is a proposal for what Caballero calls a ‘military veteran Bill of Rights’, with the intention of mitigating veteran suicide. It centers around reforming the military and providing a support system for both enlisted soldiers and veterans.

Under the proposed policy, active duty soldiers would first be granted meal and sleep time protection, an improvement that Caballero sees as ‘basic’ but still necessary. “The fact of the matter that our military soldiers are sleep deprived…and not getting all their meals…can cause massive vulnerabilities of [their] mental health and your morale,” he says.

Additionally, the Hero’s Promise aims to ensure that service members would be able to file a grievance outside of the chain of command, and would have access to adequate mental health resources.

“We need to protect mental health services” Jose explains. “As a reactor operator if I went and saw a therapist and said ‘Hey I’m not feeling great’ and they diagnosed me with depression, I lose my job. I lose my ability to serve as a reactor operator, which takes three and a half years to do. So a lot of people just sit quietly in depression for years and years at a time just so they can keep their head down and not have to suffer the consequence of being sad.”

He also said that “over 95% of our veterans are coming out with some form of PTSD.” He said boot camp is a “place where PTSD is administered.

“People are yelling at you people are screaming at you, people are calling you a piece of garbage, and a lot of these young kids have never had anybody tell them those things before, he said, “and because of that, that is a traumatic experience that they will live with for the rest of their lives. “


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